Just where do I stand? How do texts position their readers? (Research digest)


Reading time: 5 minutes

Who decides what a text means? The writer? The reader? The text itself? This depends on how you view the act of reading!

Some schools of thought regard the writer of literary fiction as the ‘authority’ over its meaning and give prominence to readings that attach a biographical significance to texts, place them firmly within a historical, social and cultural content of production and foreground authorial intention. On the other hand, reader-response theories highlight the importance of a reader’s belief systems, experiences and competencies in bringing the text to life through interaction – sometimes downplaying the role of the author completely. Then there are those theories and frameworks of reading that focus on the text itself, viewing it as a self-contained entity that simply requires close analysis to unlock its meaning.

Peter Stockwell addresses the question of meaning within the parameters of recent work in stylistics, arguing that a reader is positioned to adopt a particular vantage point towards events and characters in a fictional world. Stockwell begins his paper by distinguishing between two types of reading: everyday reading that is focused on the text itself (‘direct consciousness’); and a more scholarly and inward-looking analytical reading that is focused on trying to explain how a reader engages with a literary work (‘self-consciousness’). This latter ‘thinking about reading’ is, Stockwell suggests, the focus of stylistics as a discipline. In the context of his discussion, he draws largely on a branch of stylistics called ‘cognitive poetics’ that has been influenced by advances in cognitive science, linguistics and psychology.

Stockwell is interested in a way of re-establishing what he terms the ‘ethical dimension’ of literary reading. That is, he argues for viewing literature as a ‘rhetorical act of communication’ between writer and reader. He sees reading as a combination of text-driven constraints and a reader’s own disposition, a stance that draws together aspects of both author-centred and reader-centred theories. Stockwell also suggests that readers will often attempt to assign some kind of authority/agency to their imagined version of the author (he calls this process ‘mind modelling’), arguing that the claims that “an author thought this…” is often a kind of readerly short-cut where the notions of a real life person and implied author are conflated. In other words, readers will naturally try very hard to see a reading experience as an interaction between two people.

To explain the importance of a text-driven approach, Stockwell uses the terms ‘preferred’ and ‘dispreferred responses’ (borrowed from interactional sociolinguistics) as a way of differentiating between types of reading. He argues that most literary works have a ‘text-driven preferred response’ – for example, it would be very hard (but not impossible) to read Nineteen Eighty-Four and feel attracted to the political system and government of Airstrip One. Whilst a preferred response can be very defined (e.g. the message in Nineteen Eighty-Four) or clear but undefined (e.g. when a reader feels a sense of chaos in absurdist fiction), Stockwell suggests that all literature will contain textual patterns that motivate certain kinds of interpretations and impose constraints that make others dispreferred.

In the final part of his paper, Stockwell shows how readers navigate various ethical positions, adopting mental stances that are textually realised by shifts in time, place, modalised expressions that make suggestions about how things should be or might be, metaphors, reported speech and thought, negation, and hypotheticals. Using a combination of two cognitive poetic models, Text World Theory and Deictic Shift Theory, he argues that several versions of the reading-self (or what are termed ‘enactors’) can be tracked as part of the reading process. This in turn can account for the idea that reading has a ‘transformative effect’ and readers feel moved by the narrative, shifting their attitudes towards characters, events and concepts.

Stockwell ends his discussion with a detailed analysis of three extracts from Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Emma (Jane Austen) and Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegurt). In each of these, he uses the concept of ‘deictic braiding’, a kind of complex patterning around the various types of deixis 1 (person, time, space, social relations and textuality) to explain how these texts position their readers.

Overall, Stockwell is careful to point out that although it is readers, rather than texts, who create meanings, we should be mindful of the ways that textual imposition and readerly disposition work together in the complex act of meaning-making. This acknowledges the potential of texts to evoke meaningsthe relationship between author and reader and provides a motivation for rigorous stylistic analysis. Stockwell is clear to point out that that it is simply not enough to say that a reader is positioned by a text but that it is also ‘essential to observe and analyse how that positioning has occurred’.

This is a digest of the following article: Stockwell, P. (2013) ‘The positioned reader’, Language and Literature 22(3), 263–277.

Using this in teaching and learning

You can use this research digest to support your teaching of AQA’s specification in the following ways

  1. The term ‘preferred response’ can also be understood as the kind of reading that is most commonly held about a particular text. Ask students to explore literary criticism and the responses of other readers (using online reviews) on their chosen novel (Imagined worlds, A level; Views and voices, AS level). What do they notice? How can they account for any radical readings (‘dispreferred responses’)?
  2. John Donne, Robert Browning, Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy (Poetic Voices, A level; Views and Voices, AS level) have all been described as poets who offer strong moral messages. How might students use the terms positioned reader, preferred response and dispreferred response to discuss their work? One interesting exercise would be to take one poem that appears to have a very clear message and try to read it in alternative terms. How difficult is this? Does the language mean that some interpretations simply are less possible (or even impossible)?
  3. Stockwell’s paper concentrates solely on literature but students could also explore these ideas with non-literary material and apply this to non-literary material from the AQA Anthology as well (Remembered Places, A and AS level)
  4. The activities above could motivate a personal investigation on a literary text and some non-literary data (Making Connections, A level). Students could explore material that has a very strong moral message and undertake a fine-tuned analysis of the ways in which the texts impose certain points of view. This would work particularly well, for example, with science-fiction and political discourse. Can they explain how that positioning has occurred?

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